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The Boston Phoenix Light Motifs

Deconstructing the new Madonna.

By Franklin Soults

MARCH 16, 1998:  The biggest Madonna fan I ever met was a 50-year-old Colombian immigrant named Manuel. When I knew him back in the early '90s, this upright, good-natured, rather lonely bachelor was working at a shoe warehouse in the South End, and all around his work station hung Madonna posters he had acquired through the various stages of her career. Her latest stage, however, had shaken Manuel's devotion. He was turned off by the aggressive sexuality of the new album, Erotica, and simply dumfounded by rumors he'd heard about a book of pornographic pictures she'd just made. "She's too hard now, too cold," he'd say. There was no anger or annoyance in his voice, just a touch of bewilderment and sadness.

He wasn't the only one who felt that way. Madonna was the most controversial and analyzed pop star of the 1980s because she combined New York club culture with her Catholic, suburban background in ways that rang meaningful -- not just to clubgoers and suburbanites, but to pop fans everywhere. Yet though this process placed her at the center of our wonderful, hegemonic American pop culture, it worked only because both she and her music remained enigmatic, open to more interpretations than you could shake a doctoral thesis at. The magic couldn't last forever, and when it came time to make herself known, to choose an identity by choosing sides, she chose New York City. The Truth or Dare documentary, the Sex book, and the Erotica album all revealed Madonna more explicitly than any pop artist has ever dared, yet it alienated her fans and earned the dismissive and disgusted censure of the media, making the early '90s the nadir of the pop queen's heretofore unprecedented reign.

Her recovery has taken years of contrition. The reviews improved and sales picked up in 1994 when she released Bedtime Stories, the putatively unrepentant yet in every way softer follow-up to Erotica. Both press and public seemed to pardon her further when she put aside her own music for her film role as Evita Perón and then for her real-life role as mother to her first child, Lourdes.

Now, with the release two weeks ago of Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner Bros.), the fourth estate is calling for the full restoration of the monarchy. In Sunday papers, national music magazines, and major newsweeklies, reviewers have hailed Madonna's first album in four years as a breakthrough of new seriousness and depth, a true and painful portrait of the superstar's internal life, and more. It "blazes with pure emotion unflinchingly expressed," raves the Houston Chronicle; it's "among the freshest-sounding discs by a mainstream pop performer in the '90s," declares the Chicago Tribune; it's the artist's "most radical, most mask-free work," says Spin. Even some of her detractors are giving it backhanded props: it's "the most human music she's ever made," sneers Newsweek.

I can't help wondering whether this mightn't all be for naught. Madonna's new suite of dark electronic beats, straightforward moral declamations, and pensive, flowing melodies is certainly Something New for the one-time Material Girl -- call it an act of musical and philosophical soul searching, if you will -- but what many of these reviews have missed is how her exploration fails to connect with the external world. If Ray of Light is Madonna's turn as the Disco Diva with Depth, it plunges far beyond any place most pop fans would be interested in going. Although I haven't seen Manuel in years, my guess is that once he and thousands upon thousands of other Madonna fans around the globe get a taste of this new phase, they will again just feel slightly bewildered and saddened.

Not that I can speak for the multicultural masses who have made this disco diva the most famous female performer in the world. Neither would I care to join a critical backlash that many journalists and Madonna herself are surely correct in predicting will come. Indeed, I think most of the reviews so far have the right idea -- if some, like the Chronicle, are a little over the top, others, like the Tribune, are dead on. To judge the album in its own little nutshell, Ray of Light reconfirms Madonna's ability to claim cultural trends as her own, and it once and for all proves her tremendous musical ability. Nay-sayers may continue to insist on the paucity of her God-given talent, but this time her truly superhuman work ethic and willpower have generated an artistic payback that even they will have to admit is impressive (that is, if the nay-sayers could ever learn to admit anything).

For starters, the rave reviews are right about Madonna's voice: her 39-year-old pipes have never sounded so good. The hard work she put in with her big-shot vocal coaches during Evita has paid off, not only in the high-culture realm of breath control and ar-ti-cu-la-tion but in terms of range, fluidity, raw power. Usually she holds this strength in tensile reserve, as befits Ray of Light's meditative mood, but when she lets loose it'll raise your neck hairs, if not your dead relatives. Just check out the high-stepping and hard-rocking title track, with its compacted, swooping choruses and effortless glissandos.

What's more, these vocal heights often befit the new lyrical depths. As countless heartbreaking divas have known for centuries, there's something almost subconsciously rewarding about the contradiction of hearing insecurity expressed with supreme vocal control. Madonna has tended to save the sad stuff for understated slow ones like "Live To Tell" or simple power ballads like "Rain," but here she joins the exalted ranks of opera stars, jazzbos, and first-class dance-club mavens with the complex, brooding songcraft of "Swim" and "Skin," with their concomitant declarations of weakness and doubt: "I can't carry these sins on my back"; "Why do all the things I say/Sound like the stupid things I've said before?"

Then again, this combination is also the stuff of which high-grade schmaltz is made -- Jeanette MacDonald films, Celine Dion albums, Evita. As you may have already heard, Madonna avoids this fate by recasting her sound with the help of a distinguished ambient techno specialist, the British producer and remixer William Orbit. The machine-generated musical backdrop he devises includes sinewy synth washes, hard jolts of electronic bric-a-brac, even occasional doses of high BPM junglese. Together these effects toughen and deepen even some of her most touchy-feely meditations, like the otherwise simpish "Sky Fits Heaven."

But don't believe the hype -- Orbit's production hasn't transformed Madonna into a technohead ("Veronica Electronica," she calls herself in Spin). As most reviews have noted, Ray of Light also features Madonna's most languid pop melodies ever, many concocted with long-time collaborator Patrick Leonard (the co-writer of "Like a Prayer" and "Cherish," among other hits). There's nothing either novel or forced about this contradiction. The high degree of artistry may make the strange tension between the cosmopolitan club beats and the mainstream pop tunes more palpable, but this has been Madonna's trademark style since "Borderline" (that would be back in 1983, kids). Furthermore, as Ann Powers writes in her excellent Sunday (March 1) New York Times piece, much of the album also "gracefully connects current dance music sounds to older ones; its tracks recall early techno, Detroit house, disco, and new wave, elements that Madonna used to create her own body of work."

And there begins our tale of woe. If the music of Ray of Light isn't as radical as the album pretends, neither are the themes so daring. Certainly it's startling for a brazen sex goddess to question her superstar role and scandalous past, to look for peace and higher Truth in quotes from the Cabala and the Autobiography of a Yogi, to reveal herself by serenading her new daughter, to mourn the premature loss of her mother, to chastise a former lover. Yet to claim that these musings are more objectively "honest" than her previous output is to be stupendously naive about the nature of both art and human psychology -- especially when talking about a Type A control freak like Madonna. As Powers points out, Madonna's new outlook fits in perfectly with "the uncertain maturity of the 1980s yuppie class." Whether by instinct or design, the sex goddess has become one with a culture that gives us Lilith Fair sensitivity, rampant angelmania, and the high-tech, cosmic cultism of Heaven's Gate.

So why has it struck critics as such a radical departure? My guess is that this has more to do with changes in us than with changes in Madonna. If the music and the mission of Madonna's new album place her firmly in the mainstream, well, the American mainstream at the end of the 20th century no longer has a center. Take a look at those Heaven's Gaters, normal in every outward regard that mattered. It just goes to show: anywhere we situate ourselves, we sit off to one side. That's certainly the case in popular music. "Pop" still exists as some acultural capitalist behemoth, R&B flaunts its stuff in ways that make Erotica now seem quaint, and rock stumbles on, looking for a good place to lie down and die.

In many ways, there's plenty of fun to be had in this curious dilemma. But the thrilling mixture of all the above that allowed Madonna to become The Greatest Pop Artist Of Our Time simply no longer exists. In lieu of that, she has chosen just to become just a Great Artist, something many of our putative pop critics have a much easier time comprehending. Given the natural arc of her career, this move may have been inevitable. But it leaves me a little saddened and bewildered all the same.

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